A Soul's Worth

By TS_Barnett All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Horror

Chapter Twelve

The effect of two twins both a head taller than they really had any right to be, with hard faces and cold stares, dressed in black tuxedos so expensive one might think to accuse them of stealing, was exactly what Warren hoped it would be. People stared at them as they exited the autocar at the edge of the airdock, and space was made for them as they passed through the crowd with Warren leading the way and Cam and the brothers just behind. It was difficult to tell if more eyes were on the graceful automaton or the twin brutes, but Warren graciously smiled at those who caught his gaze on their way.

The airship dock was outside of the crowded city, of course, and was built over nigh endless rolling hills that could scarcely be seen in the evening light. Bright spotlights lined the causeway that led to the dock, the beams dissipating as they hit the low-rolling smoke from the city. The Princess Alice floated at the far end of a long boardwalk, illuminated by more carefully placed spotlights. The polished wooden exterior and gleaming brass brackets gave no hint of the thumping machinery inside, giving only an impression of quiet ease as it floated at the end of the dock. The four shining propellers extended high above the upper deck and into the clouds, twisting them into dark whirlpools.

The figurehead was a woman in a flowing blue gown, dark tendrils of hair floating back in an imaginary breeze. She held a lantern aloft in one extended arm, the other gripping the side of the ship with a delicately carved hand. Along the hull behind her were carefully formed vines, leaves, and flowers of solid gold, easily visible even from this distance. They extended as far back as the first tall windows, almost a quarter of the length of the ship.

At the bow, just at the bottom of the wooden gown, an enormous half-sphere of glass projected from the wood and brass, covering a great portion of the front of the ship. It was a marvel of engineering, Warren was told, and the most expensive airship built to date. It was certainly impressive, but Warren was slightly more concerned with the possibility of running into the employer of his attempted thief.

At the end of the boardwalk, a man in uniform checked Mr. Warren Hayward’s name on the guest list. Without hesitation, he allowed Warren and his entourage onto the hydraulic glass elevator that rose to the enclosed gangplank fifty meters above the ground. The interior of the airship was just as impressive as the exterior. Tall, open corridors let in natural light from the numerous windows, and intricately carved wood lined the crown and baseboards, continuing the ivy motif of the outside.

Near the entryway, a tall brass automaton in the shape of a woman stood on a small pedestal, staring blankly ahead. Cam approached it immediately and attempted to speak with it, but it turned its head toward Warren instead, its shuttered eyes opening and looking down at him with soft green lights.

“Good evening—Warren Hayward,” it said in a mechanical but vaguely feminine voice, the awkward pause before his name no doubt coming from a quick scan through some kind of passenger identification database. “May I be of assistance?”

“Clever,” Warren muttered, glancing sidelong at the enraptured golem. “I don’t think it’s smart enough to make friends with, Cam,” he said. “Likely it just answers pre-programmed questions. It doesn’t look as though it even walks about.”

“How sad,” the golem said, blinking its aperture eyes.

“It isn’t alive, Cam. Don’t feel sorry for it.” A slight shift caused Warren to sway as the airship disconnected from the boarding dock, and he could faintly hear the propellers churning harder to pull the weight of the ship away from the ground below.

“Come along,” Warren urged. “Let’s see if we can’t make our way to the ballroom, shall we?” He attempted to sound cavalier, and he certainly felt more secure with Simon and Owen flanking him, but the most intimidating bodyguards in England wouldn’t keep him safe from gossip and rumour and disgrace. It wouldn’t matter how impressive his automatons were if he was in prison. Most importantly, Ben’s freedom, or at the very least his position at Scotland Yard, would be in jeopardy if the intruder spoke out.

He kept his eyes open on their way through the luxurious corridors, but everyone they passed seemed either eager to stay out of the twins’ path or too involved in their own conversations to pay them any attention. As they approached the grand staircase just outside the ballroom, Warren pulled his mask from where it hung over his arm and slipped it onto his face, wishing that he’d thought to get one for Cam. The one he’d chosen for himself was a half mask in pale ivory, with black cracks painted on to give it the illusion of shattered pottery. On the cheeks and over the brow were gentle, abstract curves of gold. He didn’t expect that it actually gave him any level of anonymity, since he was likely to be to the only attending guest with both a golem and two large bodyguards in tow, but he liked the mystique of a masquerade all the same.

Wakefield knew him immediately, of course, and Warren knew him by his exceptionally long tails and the ostentatious green featheryness of his mask, which very few men could expect to pull off.

“Hayward!” he called out, trotting over with an empty glass of champagne in his hand. “I was wondering when you’d—heavens, you’re big,” he added with a quick glance at the twins, “are they with you? I was wondering when you’d show up. Showing off your little handybot, are you? Evening there, Cam, how’re things? You look right smart, don’t you? Look at you, dressed up like a proper gentleman! Wonderful!”

“I’m well, Mr. Wakefield, thank you,” Cam answered politely.

“I need to talk to you,” Warren said under his breath, and Wakefield drew conspiratorially close. “You may hear a rumour about me—”

“Oh, you know I love a good rumour,” Wakefield chuckled, but he cleared his throat and attempted to look serious in the face of Warren’s furrowed brow. “Right. Sorry. Do carry on.”

“—that I hope you won’t consider as true,” Warren finished.

“What sort of rumour? Have you gotten into some dastardly business, dear Hayward?”

“It has come to my attention,” he said in a low voice, “that some envious men in my line of work might be spreading the idea that I’m...well, that I—that I don’t enjoy the company of women.”

Wakefield paused, and he leaned down to rest his elbow on Warren’s shoulder in a way that always unpleasantly reminded the smaller man of the difference in their stature. “That does sound like quite a scandal,” he said with a pensive nod.

“A ruinous one,” Warren agreed, and Wakefield waved a dismissive hand at him.

“Nonsense. I have an easy solution for you, but my payment is this.” He leaned in so close that Warren could feel the tickle of feathers on his cheek. “You absolutely must tell me if it’s true.”

“What kind of solution?” Warren asked, attempting to dodge the question.

“Ah ah ah,” Wakefield scolded. “Answer first. I thought we were friends, Hayward,” he added with a playful frown. “If you can’t trust a man after you’ve passed out on his chaise and woken up entirely un-toyed-with, how can you trust anyone at all?”

Warren glanced over his shoulder at the twins, who seemed to be more concerned with whispering to each other than with any conversation of his. He didn’t know why he bothered thinking to keep the truth from them. If things went according to plan, they would know soon enough in any case, and besides, how could he trust them to keep a dozen murders secret, but not this?

“It is true,” he said in a rush, jumping slightly at Wakefield’s boisterous laugh.

“You know, I suspected,” he said, waving over a man carrying a tray and exchanging his empty glass for a full one. Warren took one for himself and quickly downed half of it. “I didn’t think that any usually-oriented man could look Miss Isabella St Clair in the face and turn her away. She was cross with me over that, as if I had any say in it,” he scoffed. He took a sip of his champagne and seemed to remember himself. “But yes. Your solution, as promised. You must marry,” he said with an air of finality.

Warren almost choked on his champagne. “Weren’t you listening? That’s precisely the opposite outcome of what I just told you.”

“Not if you want to keep it a secret, it isn’t. Loads of people do it. You think there’s any shortage of young women in London who don’t want anything more out of a marriage than a few thousand a year in investments and a place to hold the occasional salon? I’ll introduce you to a few and you can have your choice.”

“What, you’re serious? Just like that?”

“Of course, just like that. You’re just the thing these days, my lad; any mother would be pleased to pass on her daughter to such a promising young man. You are a bit young, and there is that, I suppose. But that can be overlooked.”

“But I couldn’t simply...for one thing, there would be certain expectations—”

You’d make all those arrangements with the lady in advance, of course.”

Warren frowned. “Your advice, then, is to tell this secret to an unknown number of single ladies of London until one of them agrees to the absolute promise of a loveless marriage?”

“Most of them are bound for loveless marriages in any case, aren’t they?” Wakefield chuckled. “Love and marriage have very little to do with each other, in my experience. This way, at least, a man and his wife may be able to maintain an amicable friendship—an elusive goal if I ever heard one.”

“And for telling secrets to women who aren’t sure to agree to such an arrangement?”

“I’ll handle that.” He laughed and held up a hand at Warren’s skeptical glower. “Don’t worry, lad; I know how to be discreet. Go and enjoy the party. I’ll be surprised if I haven’t found you a bride by morning. Do you prefer brunettes or blondes?”

“Honestly,” Warren hissed, but he found himself smiling as Wakefield ambled away, calling to another friend and waving his arm in a most indecorous fashion.

“Warren Hayward is going to marry?” Cam asked while Warren took a sip of his champagne. “I have seen marriage in the books in the study. Are you and Ben not already married?”

Warren shushed him, smiling brightly and shaking hands with a gentleman whose name he couldn’t quite remember as he passed by. “No, we aren’t,” he said when the man had passed. “I’ll explain when we’re at home. You mustn’t talk about Ben here, Cam.”

The golem nodded, and Warren took a breath before leading the way into the depths of the masquerade. He drank, he greeted acquaintances and friends, and he was introduced to a few more. He happily gave his card to anyone who asked, though he more than once had to wave away worried glances at the two men behind him. Cam was a sensation, chatting animatedly with other guests and asking curious questions. He was occasionally inappropriate, but most took it in good humour and seemed to enjoy correcting him.

When he reached Buckley, he was determined not to reveal his eagerness to talk to the promised American friend, and instead chatted casually about this and that until a woman in a high-collared plum dress walked by. Buckley stopped her with a friendly, “Ah, Miss Trentham,” and she turned to the pair of men with a pleasant but cool smile. She was tall—one might even say statuesque—with soft brown hair tucked into a neat roll and a single cascading curl brushing her bare shoulder. Teardrop diamond earrings touched the collar of her slim-fitting jacket, matching the pendant on the simple choker around her neck. She was handsome, rather than pretty, with a sharp jaw and steady brown eyes.

“This is Warren Hayward, the young man I told you about. The one with the automatons.”

Her gaze went first to Warren, then to the golem at his side and the two men standing at his rear flank. “Of course,” she said, and she offered her downturned hand to Warren. He took it gently with his free hand and bent to give her a proper bow, not quite touching his lips to the back of her gloved hand. He’d made that mistake more than once at Wakefield’s and been playfully scolded for his flirtatious forwardness. It may have had something to do with the lipstick on the collar incident, come to think of it.

“Very pleased to meet you, Miss Trentham,” he said with his best smile as he released her hand. “I’ll admit that when Mr. Buckley told me he was expecting an American business associate of his, you would have been the last person I imagined.”

“It is my father’s business, actually,” she corrected him without offense, “but he is aging and not up to the journey at present. He asked me to come and represent our interests overseas.”

“What exactly is your business?”

“Mining,” she answered simply. “Coal in West Virginia, and with some luck we may expand to the Midlands.”

“Must be prosperous business these days,” Warren chuckled. “I think most of London is coated in a fine layer of coal dust.”

“It won’t be for long if you carry on building machines that require no refuelable power source, Mr. Hayward,” she said with a long glance at Cam.

Warren smiled, but he felt a tightness in his stomach that gave him pause. Perhaps he had been hasty in assuming it was someone like Arville who had broken into his home—automatons could always be made better, but fuel sources were either necessary or they weren’t. This Trentham woman had a cold gaze that suggested she knew precisely how ruthless one must be to run a business with the scope of an international mining company. He didn’t know how long she had been in England—who knows what she had heard about him?

“Ones like Cam here could actually make your work much easier, Miss Trentham,” Warren began.

“They’re simply extraordinary,” Buckley cut in, determined to make himself a part of the conversation. “Wakefield will hardly stop talking about his. Even wearing clothes, now, I see. Come on then, Cam, show Miss Trentham how extraordinary you are.”

The golem blinked it eyes curiously at Buckley, then at Miss Trentham, his jaw making a quiet clinking sound as it moved. “I do not believe I am extraordinary,” he said in his tinny, echoing voice. “I believe humans are much more impressive. I walk and talk, and I think, but I cannot dream. I do not love, and I will never be able to make more of myself, as you humans do. Humans are immortal, in their way, because they pass on the memory of themselves to their children. My body will erode and decay, and when it is too far gone to be repaired, I wonder what will become of me? Perhaps I will die,” it mused, leaving the small group surrounding it in stunned silence.

“Something of a philosopher,” Warren said with a bit of a nervous laugh, patting the golem on the shoulder. “Don’t bring down the room, Cam.”

“I apologize. I was thinking.”

“Absolutely marvelous,” Buckley said, not quite managing to close his mouth. “A remarkable impersonation of thought. And you say they continue to learn, Hayward?”

“Of course.” Warren’s eyes were on Miss Trentham and her impassive face, trying to read her for hints of guilt or avarice but finding no clue.

“Do you have a card, Mr. Hayward?” the woman said suddenly, turning her gaze on him.

“Ah—yes, Miss Trentham, of course.” He removed the slim metal carrier from his coat pocket and presented her with his card, which she tucked into her small clutch before excusing herself.

“She’s something, that one,” Buckley said once she had gone. “Should have been born a man.”

“She’s certainly...something. Pardon me, Buckley; I’ll talk to you later, shall I?” Warren shook the man’s hand and moved away from the crowd, letting out a long breath and looking over at Cam.

“Couldn’t have just done a bit of a dance, or juggled something, could you?”

The golem shrugged at him, causing Warren to think it had spent quite too much time around Ben to pick up such a casual nature.

The ballroom deck was walled entirely with windows, giving a truly stunning view of the lights of the city below. Cam clinked his metal face against the glass to get a better look, and Warren smiled, though he wished that he could be so free as to enjoy a sight like this with Ben at his side. Could he really marry a woman for show? What kind of woman would agree to something like that? Even if Wakefield found someone as easily as he claimed to be able to, how could he trust a woman who would necessarily be a materialistic opportunist?

The magic was a whole other problem. It was one thing to admit his private proclivities to Wakefield, whom he knew to be free-thinking in such matters, and quite another to reveal the realities of magic and divulge himself a witch. He didn’t know what the consequences would be, precisely, but he didn’t expect that they would be good.

As if summoned by his thoughts, Wakefield appeared at his side as the swell of music sounded above him. It was being piped through the ballroom by speakers that hung from the tall ceiling disguised as delicate stars, glittering against the dark painted sky of the ceiling. Warren could see the limp mechanical quartet of musicians at the end of the hall, made of shining brass painted to look like tuxedos, which now sprang to life and moved in jerking motions to give the appearance of live music.

“Let’s have a dance, shall we?” he said, taking Warren’s glass from him and causing a waiter to wobble as he set it on a passing tray without looking. He took Warren’s arm and turned him to face a young woman with a thin smile and dark hair pulled up into a fashionable twist. Wakefield urged them toward the dance floor together, clearly feeling quite proud of himself.

Warren had enough alcohol in him not to feel timid with his hand on the girl’s lower back, but it didn’t help his dancing. He’d become what some people might call adequate, but hardly good enough to impress young ladies in the mood for a husband. Since when did he care about impressing any ladies, in any case? Was he really agreeing so quickly to Wakefield’s suggestion? He couldn’t possibly. How could he marry for such a selfish reason? Ben would be furious.

Won’t Ben be even worse off if we’re both taken to prison?

Warren looked down at the girl in his arms and gave her a weak smile.

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